NEW YORK POST, September 23, 2007
HITTING a baseball is the ultimate sports mystery. To solve it, you have to see it, and then repeat the proper mechanics again and again.
Slugging first baseman George Scott once said: “When you’re hitting the ball [well], it comes at you looking like a grapefruit. When you’re not, it looks like a black-eyed pea.”
Tony Abbatine has helped hitters turn the baseball into a grapefruit through his unique training program.
Talk to him about the visual mechanics of hitting and observe some of his training methods and you walk away amazed and wonder why more major league teams and players aren’t using Abbatine’s methods. He started his first training center in an old iron factory in New Rochelle back in 1988 as he came up with the perfect name to describe what has become his life’s work: Frozen Ropes.
A frozen rope is baseball slang for a line drive.
Today there are 40 Frozen Ropes franchised training centers teaching the visual mechanics of hitting to the youth-league player, all the way up to the college and pro player, including major leaguers. Abbatine, 46, has worked as a consultant for a number of major league teams and top-level college programs.
One of Abbatine’s most satisfied customers is Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox, consistently one of the most feared hitters in baseball. In spring training 2004, Ramirez saw Abbatine give a presentation and became interested the program. He eventually went to the Chester, N.Y., facility to work directly with Abbatine.
Jose Reyes and David Wright used the Frozen Ropes training methods coming up through the minor leagues. Jim Duquette, the former Mets GM who is currently the Orioles assistant GM, brought Abbatine into the Mets system and refers to the program as “cutting edge.” Bobby Valentine also believed in the program, and in 2000, it was introduced to the Mets in Port St. Lucie.
When asked about Frozen Ropes, Ramirez smiled, but did not answer any questions, as is his custom with reporters. On the company Web site, though, Ramirez says, “Frozen Ropes is the best in baseball in teaching the visual game.”
Through the years, the Mets, Red Sox and Rockies have hired Abbatine. He worked with the Mets for six years in the field of video analysis and visual mechanics. He was a visual-mechanics consultant for a brief time in 2005 with the Yankees. Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said he would like to introduce some aspects of the program to his hitters in the offseason.
The same goes for Mets hitting instructor Howard Johnson.
“The visual part of hitting doesn’t get discussed a lot and that’s important,” says Johnson, who has worked with Frozen Ropes on the amateur level, along with Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson. “I think it’s an area that needs to explored and Tony has done a lot of work in that. There’s definitely a place for it in major league baseball.”
Frozen Ropes is not just about hitting. When you see Mariano Rivera begin to stretch out in the bullpen, he uses weighted baseballs. Those techniques and weighted balls were developed by Frozen Ropes.
“I’ve used that for a long time,” Rivera says. “It’s good.”
“The advantage of the weighted ball over the elastic bands is that you are strengthening your hand and your fingers,” Abbatine says. “With the bands, you never really hold a baseball. This way, you are training kinetically.”
The hitting drills are fascinating.
“This isn’t about me changing swing mechanics. This is really making sure that your hitting coach and your players have another resource in what I think is the most important part of hitting a baseball, and that’s the seeing part,” he says of his program. “There is so much more that can be done at the major- and minor-league level for pitch recognition.
“We’re not changing your program,” he tells major league clubs. “We’re just going to put some visual reality into it.”
In one drill, baseballs are marked in red to mimic the stitching a batter sees when a pitch is rotating. This accentuates to the eye the hump of a curve ball or the dot of a slider.
“We call it ‘reading the red,’ ” Abbatine explains. “It’s the red part of a baseball that tells you where it’s going and how fast it’s going. You train yourself visually and mentally to lock in on the red. This is part of the pre-game warm-up that Manny does.”
Rings and rods containing different marked baseballs are also tossed to the hitter, who follows a verbal command to grab the baseball marked as the slider, curve ball or the split-fingered fastball.
“Open focus” is taught where the hitter sees so much more without looking physically hard at the object. There are many other exercises, including different letter charts – consider it a form of speed reading for the hitter. “You’re focusing what’s in the middle, but your brain is taking in what’s before and after it,” Abbatine says.
“Guys at the major league level get in trouble when they have what’s called ‘split-screen,’ that their brain is thinking, instead of being totally devoted to seeing. If visual becomes the only part of the computer up there, you are going to be much more effective,” he says.
Abbatine notes that players like Ramirez are hitting geniuses because he can “one-dimensionally think about his visual skills.” Hitters want to stay away from “ocular bugs,” where the eyes grow large. Abbatine says some of his visual-mechanics techniques were originally used by NASA.
He’s also introducing a new 300-frames-per-second motion-analysis system, called ZFlo, to his programs to study both pitchers and hitters, something the Mets will use.
“If you improve in reading the red by one-one-hundredth of a second, you are picking up six inches,” explains Abbatine. “On a 95 mile per hour fastball, you have to start your swing at the 32-foot mark – that’s the judgment line.”
It’s key to remain upright to see the ball and not bury your head into the ball. “When guys struggle,” he says, “they try to start seeing the ball with their head instead of using their eyes. That is why it is important to do the drills every day.”
Abbatine talks about the pre-release gaze of Barry Bonds. “He always comes in on a right-hander from left-center field,” Abbatine said.
For years, hitters have been taught to start at the bill of the cap, a technique Abbatine says is a “false strategy.” That’s a right-to-left perspective. “We are taught to read left to right and then we ask all these young hitters to go in the opposite direction.”
Manny’s trademark drill is called “face the fire,” where he stands on home plate, keeping his head steady and then as the coach starts putting his hand up, Manny simply goes to the side and hits, making sure his head never moves, he slides back underneath his head.
“When Manny does that drill,” Abbatine says, “you will not even see his nose move left to right, and boom, he swings. That’s his head-stabilization drill.”
Eye patches are used to strengthen the hitter’s concentration level of his back eye, his camera, and to work on open focus. Baseball for too long, Abbatine insists, has been using the same old, tired drills.
“Can’t we think of other things to do besides putting the ball on a tee and then a guy goes 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and they say, ‘All right, let’s do the same thing tomorrow.’ ”
Abbatine and Frozen Ropes offer a new tomorrow.